I don’t know about you, I love me some podcasts. There are some great sport related ones that I follow, and others that are completely unrelated. An excellent example of the latter is “Writing Excuses” which from my perspective is a “Brandon Sanderson and friends” kind of deal. I learned of this podcast quite recently (as in sometime in 2018. You’ll have to excuse me, at my age one starts to forget details), and for the most part, I really enjoy it. It’s kind of short (which is the point really) and focuses on a specific writing related topic in each episode. It’s also ordered by seasons and episodes, which I find fun, and while I’d never recommend to take any podcast as a bible, one thing this one offers is some perspective. Out of what the team has to offer, I may or may not take advice, but even if I disagree with some things (and I do), I still enjoy the contrast, even if only as a test to my current held position. You should definitely check it out if you’re interesting in the topic of writing at all.
Having said that, I listened to the episode “How To Handle Weighty Topics” from Sunday, August 12th, 2018 on my way to work and it (as it often does) made me think. I’m not necessarily challenging anything said on the podcast, or saying “you’re wrong”. I merely offer my thoughts on the topic.
As the topic of weighty topics is… weighty… I’d like to break it down a little (well, more than a little). First, what did they mean by weighty? My understanding is – At any time one writes about a person or persons who are not of his “group” (we’ll get to that), or something that is outside of his existence which is of sensitivity to one or more groups, the topic becomes weighty. Of course I could be misunderstanding, but that – in itself – doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
With the above assumption in mind, let’s start touching the weighty topics.
One of the best questions asked during the podcast was “Why is it so important for the writer?” and I think that this is the fundamental question each of us should ask ourselves before embarking on the project. Are we writing about racism because we want to “be cool”? or perhaps because we “have a message”? Are we writing about racism, or is what we write racist (or can be perceived as such)? mind you, this applies to most all isms. Is one of our characters racist? “just a little”? Outright obnoxious, racist, pig? and if so, what does that mean for our story? Do we write that character in “to have a racist character”? There are a lot of “whys” we should ask ourselves before even going into a weighty topic (more on that later).
For me, the decision is made based on one question – Does it serve the story in any meaningful way? whether it’s the plot, character or settings. If the answer is yes – you will see some ism in my book. If not, I’m not even going there.
Another question that really interests me, and I’m hoping some of you may want to give me possible answers (I’m really asking) is, do we really need to address the isms every time? What I mean is this – If I’d elect to write a story featuring, say… a gay person. If I illustrate the discrimination and suffering that person may experience, I may be misrepresenting it, or perhaps worse, over simplifying it. If I tell a story, in which a character just happens to be gay, why does he have to be gay? (and excuse the usage of male, that’s just my habit). How does the character, being gay, contribute to the story, other than to be a “hey, I included a gay person in my story” (Do we really have to choose a “pet minority”?). And If I chose one group, or three, and not others…
What I’m trying to say is, inclusiveness is fun, and I go back to that question – does it serve the story in a meaningful way? if so, why the hell not. As a reasonably new writer, I tend to write more of what I know, and I do not know enough yet to pretend to get in the head of some groups. I feel that, until I’ve spoken to, learned about, understood people better, I’d rather stay away. That way I am – at the very least – significantly reducing my chances of falling into the trap. One day I will know more. On that day, I may take the plunge.
The most insightful and meaningful comment I heard on the podcast (and excuse me, I don’t remember who said what – they are all interesting) was regarding the fact that, though we all may be (whether we want to or not) part of certain different groups, we have so much more in common than we are really different. I totally agree that, from a writer’s perspective, if we write our characters with that in mind, the chances of our writing being offensive, or perceived as such, are reduced. I want to say it clearly again – there’s a huge difference between writing an offensive character (which is perfectly fine) and writing offensively (which I don’t recommend).
So far I focused on the writing itself, as it relates to weighty topics. But There is still the question of what is the writer’s role in the discussion of a certain weighty topic. My personal opinion is that it’s up to the writer. Some may feel a burning need to address a weighty topic because it may hit “close to home” for them, or perhaps the opposite – choose to stay away from one, for the exact same reason. I don’t think that everyone should necessarily write about them, but I do expect from any book that I write to be true to its reality. If a character in our story is of a group that suffers blatant discrimination, I expect to see him as such. I don’t need a militant activist of any faction for that. I just expect that the character will not be “just another guy”. Otherwise I will ask again – why does he have to be part of a specific group?
I’m not a big fan of preachy fiction. I identify with causes, but I do that in real life. In fiction I’d like to read a story that is informed by whatever reality it exists in. I can identify with a suffering character, as long as it’s not meant to “educate” me. It’s more about empathy to a character than a “message” that the writer wants to send.